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A History of the Native People of Canada
Volume I (10,000 to 1,000 B.C.)

Early Palaeo-Eskimo Culture (Précis, Chapter 21)

The origins of Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture were rooted in the Neolithic cultures of northeastern Siberia (Dumond 1984; Irving 1968a; McGhee 1978). Originally the term 'Palaeo-Eskimo' was coined to distinguish a hypothesized early musk-ox hunting culture from the baleen whale hunting culture of the ancestors of the present day Inuit (Steensby 1917). The use of the term to refer to a microlithic technology that spread eastward from Alaska was formulated by Lewis J. Giddings (1951; 1956) and William N. Irving (1953). Whether this culture developed its unique adaptation to the Arctic environment in Siberia or Alaska is a matter of some debate (see McGhee 1978 and 1987 for a consideration of the various origin hypotheses). Early Palaeo-Eskimos were the first people to be able to cope with the environmental constraints of Arctic North America. These constraints included severe cold, a paucity of plant foods, limited seasonal availability of most food animals, limited number of prey species, and scarcity of fuel and raw materials (McGhee 1974: 831-832). Early Palaeo-Eskimos also appear to have been the first people to effectively exploit sea mammals on the open sea ice. A number of regional varieties or subcultures of Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture were originally subsumed under the term 'Arctic Small Tool tradition' (Irving 1968a) but it has recently been agreed to change this name to the shorter and generically implicit term 'Palaeoeskimo' (Maxwell 1976). The name has been hyphenated here in order to be consistent with the spelling of Palaeo-Indian. Paradoxically there is some basis for scepticism regarding a direct generic association of Palaeo-Eskimo culture with the historically documented Inuit of northern Alaska, Arctic Canada, and Greenland (McGhee 1978). The original assumption of an association was premised upon similar ways of life and a perceived cultural continuity extending from the initial appearance of Palaeo-Eskimo culture at about 2,500 B.C. to the Inuit-speaking peoples of northern Alaska (Anderson 1984). If Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture does represent a late migration from Siberia to Alaska then there are the problems of how it relates to the archaeological record of the Yuit-speaking people of southern and southwestern Alaska and the eastern Siberian coast or to the Aleut-speakers of the Aleutian Islands. Did, for example, Early Palaeo-Eskimo people speak a northeastern Siberian Chukotan language (McGhee 1978: Chapter 2)? The nature of the evidence permits a number of possible views regarding Palaeo-Eskimo and Inuit relationships. A late 3,000 to 2,500 B.C. migration from Siberia to Alaska and, thence, to the east is favoured here. The term Palaeo-Eskimo is retained rather than Palaeo-Inuit as the relationship to the Yuit-speaking people of southern Alaska is unclear and even the evidence of cultural continuity to the Inuit-speaking people to the north is compromised by a discontinuity represented by the Old Bering Sea complex.

Maskette - Drawing: David Laverie
Early Palaeo-Eskimo Maskette

This 2,250 B.C. ivory maskette recovered from a tent floor at the Icebreaker Beach site on Devon Island, N.W.T. is believed to portray a tattooed woman. Measuring only 54 mm by 29 mm, the carving has been executed with great attention to realism in contrast to Middle Palaeo-Eskimo culture anthropomorphic art. It is regarded as an example of a stylistic and symbolic art tradition that extended throughout the development of Palaeo-Eskimo culture and possibly had its roots in Siberia or Alaska.

(Adapted from Helmer 1986: 188. Drawing by Mr. David W. Laverie.)

The rapid spread of Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture throughout the Arctic can be attributed to their ability to exploit lands beyond seasonal commuting ranges of forest dependent Indian cultures. Despite the current absence of a Siberian Bering coast ancestral archaeological culture from which to derive Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture, a western origin is favoured given the absence of potential ancestral cultures in Alaska as well as the sudden appearance of Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture over large areas of both previously unoccupied and marginally occupied lands. In the latter instance, there is a sharp cultural discontinuity with earlier occupations suggesting population replacement rather than cultural change resulting from technological diffusion. Relative to the possible language(s) spoken by Early Palaeo-Eskimo peoples it is noted that some of their direct descendants, the Tunit or Dorset, were Inuit-speakers according to the oral traditions of present day Inuit-speakers in the Canadian Arctic (Rasmussen 1931: 113-114).

The sudden appearance and rapid dispersal of Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture "...provides not only the beginning of the prehistory of most of the American Arctic but also one of its major integrating devices: the first indication of interest in and ability to colonize the High Arctic, that interest so basic to the popular conception of the nature of later Eskimos" (Dumond 1984: 74). Certainly the most unique characteristic of Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture was the ability to maintain viable populations on the vast tundras and the frozen Arctic coastlines of the far north. A flexible economy, based upon the exploitation of land and marine resources and an exceptional technology, permitted these people to be the first to flourish far north of the forest border in regions potentially habitable as early as 5,000 B.C. (McGhee 1975: 55). Within the archaeological record of the Western Hemisphere the spread of Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture from northern Alaska across Arctic Canada into northern Greenland to form a configuration resembling an asymmetric triangle nearly 5,000 km east by west and 3,000 km north by south was only exceeded by the spread of Palaeo-Indian culture thousands of years earlier. There are parallels with the earlier migration. Early Palaeo-Eskimo technology is strikingly similar from Alaska to Greenland suggesting that the colonizing of new lands was not only a rapid process but that an unusual degree of cultural cohesion and conservatism was maintained through both time and space over vast territories. Like Palaeo-Indian culture, the movement of Early Palaeo-Eskimo peoples was into previously unoccupied territories except along the southern fringes of their territory where they either replaced or reoccupied former 'Indian' territory. It can be assumed that game animals unfamiliar with human predators would initially fall easy victims to the newcomers thus favouring an accelerated spread of people.

Throughout such an enormous and physiographically diversified region as the Arctic an exceptional degree of mobility must have been maintained in order to retain the cultural systems. Cultural homogeneity would have been encouraged by a social organization based upon small bands with very flexible rules of cross membership. Such a system would best meet the marital and social requirements of individual bands and result in a number of interrelated bands. An expansive kinship based collection of bands would then have acted as a social network within which rights and obligations would provide a degree of social security to all the component parts. Undoubtedly the vagaries of Arctic resource availability would assure the maintenance of both physical and social mobility within a broad social network. Many of the factors apparently responsible for the extraordinary degree of cultural homogeneity of the Early Palaeo-Eskimos also pertained to the culture of their Middle Shield culture neighbours to the south. An exceptional degree of mobility, demanded by the dispersed nature of the animal resources, is reflected in the settlement patterns. In addition to a flexible band affiliation being available to families and individuals, inter-band female residency patterns and other reciprocal insurance devices, such as inter-band trading partners, would have acted as the glue to hold together a geographically extensive social system. In this respect, the constraints faced by the hunting cultures of the treeless Arctic and the forests, while different in degree, would have been similar in kind in that both regions demanded an exceptional degree of mobility and social flexibility supported by a very broad consanguinal and/or fictive kinship network. While such a social network would have accommodated the diffusion of western Arctic traits to the east, such as ground slate tools and stone lamps, local requirements could change the form of the introduced technology thus masking the evidence of diffusion. Insufficient recognition of the role of stimulus diffusion, the diffusion of the knowledge of a technology rather than the direct physical transfer and replication of a technological item or complex, has probably led to the questionable assumption that Arctic cultures represent 'closed systems' (Maxwell 1980: 163).

There is controversial evidence that at least two initial migrations were involved in the occupation of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. Both migrations would have taken place during the warmer climatic conditions and expanded open water that prevailed between 2,500 and 1,500 B.C. (McGhee 1978; Nichols 1968; 1972). Apparently spreading across the High Arctic, the first migration by a subculture referred to as Independence I (Knuth 1952) has not been identified in Alaska and has been radiocarbon dated earlier in the east than Palaeo-Eskimo sites in the west. Presumably the earliest sites in Alaska are yet to be discovered. This migration between 2,500 and 2,000 B.C. may have been followed by a second population movement across the Lower Arctic several centuries later that is assigned to the Pre-Dorset subculture. Pre-Dorset exhibits more specific similarities with the contemporaneous Denbigh subculture of northern Alaska than was the case with Independence I. Subsequent to these initial colonizing movements, populations related to the Independence I subculture appear to have shifted southward down the east coast of Baffin Island and thence to the northern Labrador coast (Cox 1978; Fitzhugh 1976; Tuck 1975) and as far as the Island of Newfoundland (Tuck: No date). Similarly, around 1,500 B.C. some Pre-Dorset people from the Coronation Gulf region of the Arctic Coast moved into the interior in conjunction with a deterioration in the climate and took up residence on the Barrengrounds (Clark 1987; Gordon 1975; Noble 1971). Some of their camps even penetrated as far south as the northshore of Lake Athabasca in Saskatchewan (Wright 1975) and well into northern Manitoba (Irving 1968). These people abandoned the Barrengrounds sometime after 1,000 B.C. About the same time as Early Palaeo-Eskimos were moving into the Barrengrounds an apparently small population of coastal oriented Pre-Dorset people spread down both sides of Hudson Bay (Nash 1969; Taylor 1962).

By the end of Period III a number of changes take place in Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture and initiate the Period IV Middle Palaeo-Eskimo culture referred to as Dorset. The most significant of these changes are believed to be the construction of igloos and the establishment of winter sealing villages on the sea ice. Stone oil lamps or possible archaeologically invisible equivalents would have been a necessary element of technology for heating, cooking, and lighting in igloos since open hearths cannot be used in enclosed snow houses. Such lamps, very rare in late Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture, become common after 1,000 B.C. What are regarded as special knives for cutting snow blocks for igloo construction also appear. There is indirect evidence, however, that winter sealing villages on the sea ice may have been in existence during Period III.

With few exceptions, the preservation of organic remains in Early Palaeo-Eskimo sites is poor to non-existent. This situation stands in marked contrast to subsequent occupations where increasing permafrost development assured the preservation of not only bone but other organic materials such as wood. As a consequence, the study of Early Palaeo-Eskimo technology must rely upon the stone tool inventory, a technology dominated by a distinctive class of burins and their resharpening spalls. To judge from use-polish studies of the burins (Gordon 1975; Maxwell 1985) they functioned as a type of draw knife for working hard materials such as ivory and bone. The spalls produced in the process of 're-sharpening' the cutting edge of the burin by removing a single flake may have been used as perforators. Microblades punched from specially prepared cores were another common tool. These major items along with lesser numbers of bipointed and triangular point tips for both arrows and harpoon heads, and gravers are found from the Pacific Ocean across the Arctic to the Atlantic Ocean (Maxwell 1985: Figure 3.4). When bone implements do survive small needles with minute drilled thread holes are generally present. Much rarer are harpoons, initially non-toggling types followed by toggling varieties.

Direct evidence of subsistence is limited. Even when preserved the cultural significance of the refuse bone is questionable, particularly in the High Arctic, given the practices of burning bones as fuel and storing foods acquired in the fall for consumption during the winter. The burning of bones biases the faunal sample in favour of small game remains which were inappropriate as fuel and the storage of seasonal foods confounds efforts to determine seasonality. Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture has generally been described as having a subsistence economy involving the exploitation of both sea and land mammals but the variable nature of the enormous territory involved assured that economies were regionally variable. In some regions, for example, the annual hunting focus could be on caribou and musk-ox or, in other circumstances, seals. Of all the cultural systems settlement patterns provide the most trustworthy basis for judging subsistence practices rather than the limited faunal remains. Site locations across the territory of Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture indicate that adaptations could be either diffuse or focused depending upon local circumstances. The majority of site locations, however, suggest a balanced seasonal exploitation of both marine and land animals involving open-water seal hunting in the summer, a fall caribou hunt in the interior likely in conjunction with the harvest of char returning to the inland lakes from the ocean, and winter sealing on the sea ice. As indicated, there would be many variations on the aforementioned seasonal subsistence rounds such as the Independence I focus on musk-ox hunting in the northeastern High Arctic. Another deviation from the seasonal sea-land subsistence rounds was the interior adapted caribou hunters and fishermen of the Barrengrounds of Keewatin District although it is not entirely clear whether this interior adaptation was permanent rather than being an annual seasonal event.

There is little evidence to permit inferences on the cosmological beliefs of the Early Palaeo-Eskimo people. A few fragmentary bone maskettes from very late sites in the Igloolik area (Maxwell 1985) hint at some form of shamanistic beliefs. This function is partially inferred from the rich two and three-dimensional art of Middle Palaeo-Eskimo culture during Period IV. A striking maskette from the High Arctic appears to represent a tattooed individual although the symbolism of the design is unknown (Helmer 1986). As with most hunting groups, the Early Palaeo-Eskimos likely believed that all objects and elements had spirit forces. These forces were generally indifferent to humans, who were also an integral part of the system, but could, depending upon either inappropriate or appropriate behaviour on the part of individuals, elicit bad or good responses. Individuals with special powers to manipulate these dangerous spirits were the shamans.

With the exception of western Arctic cultural contacts via diffusion and the mobility of individuals and families, Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture appears to have had relatively little contact with its neighbours. Neighbours in Canada were Middle Northwest Interior culture of the western Subarctic, Middle Shield culture from southern Keewatin District across the Boreal Forest to the central Labrador coast, and Middle Maritime culture along the Labrador coast. As Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture spread into the northern margins of its neighbours it can be assumed that, despite some southward contraction of the latter cultures due to a deteriorating climate, the intruders were regarded as enemies. There is some evidence of direct contact between Early Palaeo-Eskimo and Middle Maritime cultures along the northern Labrador coast in the form of alien diagnostic tools being recovered from the sites of both cultures. More significant is the evidence of technological exchange involving the addition of toggling harpoons to Early Palaeo-Eskimo technology that resemble Middle Maritime culture forms and the appearance of thin, symmetrical side-notched projectile points, believed to be arrowheads, on late Middle Shield culture sites. Such projectile point forms have prototypes in Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture sites. Thus, there appears to have been an exchange of hunting technology, toggling harpoons from Middle Maritime culture and the bow and arrow technology from Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture (Tuck 1976a).

A newborn or premature child recovered from a dwelling floor at the Rocky Point site on Devon Island (Helmer and Kennedy 1986) represents the only skeletal remains in existence that can be definitely attributed to Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture. Given the age of the individual, nothing can be said regarding biological affinities. Both limited preservation of bone during Period III and the possibility that the remains of the deceased were destroyed by exposure to the elements, reduce the chances that samples that could shed light on racial affinities will ever be recovered. With reference to Middle Palaeo-Eskimo culture (Dorset) of Period IV, however, it would appear to " safe to predict that the skeletal remains of these cultures will show the Arctic Mongoloid morphological pattern" (Oschinsky 1964: 32).

Despite the exceptional surface exposure of sites, especially in the High Arctic, there are severe limitations in the nature of the evidence on Early Palaeo-Eskimo culture. Limitations include reconnaissance that is often restricted to current population and transportation centres, poor archaeological visibility of the meagre archaeological remains left by highly mobile hunters, soil conditions that destroy all organic material, isostatic rebound isolating early sites from regions of recent human activity, erosion and ice push along rivers, permafrost conditions that destroy or mix stratigraphic deposits, and the build up of peat deposits in the lower and western Arctic which has buried the earliest archaeological remains. Partly compensating for these drawbacks are both the readily recognizable nature of Early Palaeo-Eskimo stone tool technology and its preferential use of high quality and often brightly coloured cherts.

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